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   Chapter 18 THE COMBAT IN THE RIVER.

Jack Haydon's Quest By John Finnemore Characters: 13297

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The river, though swift, was not muddy, and through the clear brown water he saw plainly the vast open jaws of a huge alligator rising in the stream, and about to seize the pony by the neck. In another second the great saurian would have seized its prey, but the pony swerved aside, and the huge snout shot out of the water, and the jaws, missing their prey, clashed together with a sharp snap. At the next moment they were opened, as the alligator drew back a little for a fresh assault.

Jack had been marching with his Mannlicher held on top of the pony's pack, and his Mauser pistol held up in the other hand, hoping to keep the weapons dry. Now he seized the opportunity of pouring a stream of heavy Mauser bullets into the open jaws.

So swiftly did he press the trigger that he drove five shots in before the alligator once more snapped its jaws close. The great saurian was badly wounded, and in its rage and agony began to lash the water furiously with its huge tail, while blood and foam poured out at its jaws and nostrils. The deadly, ripping, soft-nosed bullets, which would have glanced off its hide of mail, had torn their way down its throat and through the soft parts of the body with fearful destructive power, inflicting mortal wounds. At sound of the pistol shots so close to its ear, the pony leapt forward more frantically still, and the huge dying brute was left floundering in the water.

"One done for," roared Jim in delight. "Peg away, boys. We may come safe yet."

The words were scarcely out of his mouth when Buck let out a yell of alarm.

"Say," cried Buck, "there's one here. He's got hold of the pony."

Buck's words were drowned by the loud shrill squeal of affright from the pony, whose off-hind leg had been seized by the second of the vast brutes to attack the party.

"Here's another," shouted Jack, and he and Jim, who had been also holding his pistol above the stream, fired rapidly. The third alligator was sailing straight upon them down stream, floating on the surface, his evil, unwinking eyes fixed full on the pony which he was about to attack. Jim planted a lucky shot in one of the wicked-looking eyes and knocked it clean out of its socket. Jack plainly saw the bleeding hole before the alligator threw up his huge tail, slapped the water with a crack like thunder, and dived.

In the meantime Buck was engaged in a terrible struggle with the alligator which had seized the pony. He held the bridle of the unlucky beast, and assisted it as much as possible in the strong fight it made for its life. So desperately did the powerful little animal struggle with its terrible foe that it actually gained a dozen yards or more, dragging the huge reptile along the river-bed. But the immensely powerful jaws, fanged with strong, sharp teeth, never loosed their grip.

Jim now turned to Buck's assistance. At that instant the alligator rolled in the water, showing its softer underside. It rose towards the surface, yet never easing its grip, and lashed the river into foam with its powerful tail as it tugged backwards with tremendous force, aiming to pull the pony into the deeper water. For a moment Jim saw its underside near the surface, the four horrible legs armed with huge claws striking out savagely in the water.

He thrust his rifle into the stream, pressing the muzzle against the saurian's body. Luckily the magazine still remained above water, and he fired several shots in swift succession into the vast brute, the water boiling and swirling as the gases of the discharge came to the surface in huge bubbles. One of these shots must have reached a vital part; the alligator gave a final convulsive shudder, its jaws ground savagely together, then they gaped wide, and the pony was free.

Jack was pushing on swiftly with the pony under his charge. That was his business, and he hurried forward, feeling joyfully that the water was growing shallower with every step. His shoulders were out, and now the pony's withers began to rise. Suddenly a horrid dark snout was thrust up in front of him. It was the wounded alligator, which had returned to the assault.

Before Jack could fire the saurian dived, and Jack saw the huge dark form dart at him under water. He felt his legs swept from under him at the next instant, and down he went. He had not been seized, he had simply been knocked from his foothold by the rush of the great brute, and he landed full on the alligator's back. He felt plainly with his hand its rough scaly covering like knobs of horn. He had kept his eyes open, and saw clearly the horrid brute below him, and the dark forms of his companions at hand.

He dropped his pistol, whipped out a great hunting-knife from his belt, and drove it time and again into the underside of the big reptile. Then he struck out for the surface and came up gasping for breath. He swam a dozen swift strokes before he dared to drop his feet again and find the easy depth which the whole party had now reached. He saw that the Burman was leading ashore the pony he had been torn away from, and that Buck and Jim were doing their utmost to keep the second pony on its legs. Suddenly the bottom began to rise swiftly, and the whole party, fearfully exhausted, but very luckily unhurt, staggered ashore and threw themselves down on the warm sand.

"You all right, Jack?" snapped Buck. "I thought I saw you go under."

"Yes," said Jack, "the brute that Jim knocked an eye out of attacked me and fetched me off my legs. But I dug a knife into him and got away. How are you two?"

"Oh, we've come through with a sound skin," replied Jim. "But that was a near shave. And look what we've missed." He pointed to the water, where, thirty yards out, half-a-dozen huge ridged backs were now to be seen cruising to and fro.

"By Jove!" said Jack, "it's a fresh lot turned up just as we got out."

Everyone shuddered as they thought what their fate would have been if the alligators, attracted to the scene by the scent of prey, had arrived a few moments earlier.

"Where are the dacoits?" said Jack, looking across to the other bank. "They've all cleared out, except a couple who seem posted to watch us."

"So they have," rejoined Buck. "What's their little game?"

"I wonder if there's another bridge handy," remarked Jack. "Where's the next bridge, Me Dain?"

"A long way down the river, sahib, but there is a village about four miles off."

"Then they've gone there to borrow a boat, I'll wager a trifle on that," cried Jack.

"Right for you, Jack," said Dent. "We'd better be on the move. But what can we do with this pony?"

The poor beast, which t

he alligator had mauled, had managed to get ashore and that was all. Its leg was frightfully torn.

"This pony 'll never hit the trail again," remarked Buck, after he had examined it carefully. "We shall have to carry its pack partly between us and partly on the other pony."

"Poor little brute," said Jack. "It's suffering fearfully. Look at its eyes!"

"We can do nothing for it, I'm afraid," remarked Jim.

"No," said Buck, "but if we don't hump round a bit, somebody'll do something for us."

This hint of the danger in which they still stood from the blood-thirsty and revengeful dacoits quickened their movements, and the wounded pony was stripped in a few moments. The other pony was quite unhurt, and a good share of the baggage was added to its load for the present; the remainder was swung up on the shoulders of the four members of the party.

Jack, Jim, and the Burman now marched swiftly up the river bank towards the road which ran from the broken bridge. Buck stayed behind for a moment. Soon his companions heard the crack of the pistol which put an end to the sufferings of the wounded pony, then heard Buck's footsteps as he hastened to rejoin them.

"What a lucky thing you packed the ammunition in water-tight tins, Jim," remarked Jack, as they pushed at full speed along the bank.

"Yes," said Jim, "I've been in this country a time or two afore. It wasn't wetter in that river than it is in the jungle at times when a storm catches you."

"I've lost my Mauser pistol," said Jack. "It had to go when that brute knocked my legs from under me. I had to drop it to whip my knife out. Luckily I've got my rifle all right. That was on the sling."

"We've got another Mauser in the outfit," said Jim. "I slipped a couple of spare ones in. We'll turn it out at the next stopping-place."

No more was said, and they pushed on swiftly along the river bank. The day was fearfully hot and the road rough. Jim Dent began to puff and blow under his burden.

"Say," grunted Buck, "this is a tough job running away under loads from dacoits who'll scour after us like coyotes as soon as they hit our bank of the river."

"It is," panted Jim. "Me Dain, how far is it to the next village which is strong enough to make us safe against the Kachins?"

The Burman shook his head.

"Soon the road leaves the river," he said. "Then it goes through jungle. But it passes only little villages, very little."

"A jungle road, and no chance of a haven," said Jack. "This sounds precious awkward. It strikes me our only chance will be to pick a strong position, or as strong a one as we can find, and wait for them. They'll certainly run us down pretty soon at the pace we're travelling now."

"And we can't go any faster," said Buck, "without we leave our traps, and then we should be up a tree for want of them, even if we escaped from the dacoits in the end."

"I'm getting beat, and that's a fact," murmured Jim Dent. "I had a sharp touch of fever about three months ago, and it's not gone so clean out of my bones as I thought."

"I'll carry your pack, Jim," cried Jack.

"In addition to your own?" said Dent. "Not likely. I'll peg along a bit farther before I agree to that."

At that moment the path ran into a grove of tall bamboos clustered along the bank. The grove was of no great width, and they emerged from it to see a little camp pitched on a sand-bank beside the stream. A fire was burning, and a pot of rice simmering over the flame. Watching the rice, sat, or rather squatted, a couple of Shan boatmen, and their boat was moored to a tree at the water's edge.

"Hallo!" cried Jack, "these chaps have got a big boat here. Can't we get them to run us and our stuff up the river?"

"By George!" said Jim Dent, "there's something in that."

"Ask them, Me Dain," called Jack. "Tell them we'll pay them well if they'll carry us up the river."

The Burman ran forward at once and began to talk quickly to the big-hatted boatmen. In two moments everything was settled. The men were poling their boat back up the stream after selling a load of tobacco in a down-river village, and were glad to serve travellers who would pay them well. The baggage was stripped from the pony, and hastily swung into the empty boat.

"What shall we do with the pony?" said Jack.

"Turn him loose into the jungle," said Buck. "He's got heaps of sense, they all have. Before night he'll hit on some village, and then he'll soon find a master. A stray pony comes in very useful to anybody."

This was done. Me Dain led the pony a short distance from the river bank and loosed it, and gave it a cut with a switch. The little creature threw up its heels joyfully to find itself free, then cantered off among the trees, and they saw it no more.

By this time the Shans had swallowed their rice, and were ready to seize their poles. All sprang aboard, the Shans and Me Dain grasped the boating-poles, and the craft was soon being driven steadily up stream. For some time Jack watched the boatmen with deep interest. They drove their craft along just as a punt is propelled in England. Each man handled a long stout pole, and, where the water was shallow enough, he set the bottom of his pole in the gravelly bed and urged the boat forward. Where the water was too deep the craft was turned inshore, and the polers thrust the ends of their staves against the bank or against tree trunks lining the water's edge. Jack saw that quite deep holes had been made in many of the trunks where boatman after boatman had gained the purchase which sent his craft spinning up stream.

"Well, Jim," said Jack, "this is a bit easier anyhow."

"It is," sighed Dent, wiping the streaming sweat from his brow. "I was pretty near caving in, and that's a fact."

"We'll drop the dacoits for a sure thing," said Buck. "They'll stop to hunt all about the place where they lose our trail, and then they'll follow up the pony for a dead cert."

"True for you, Buck," replied Jim Dent. "We left no marks at all to show them where we got into the boat."

They had embarked secretly by pushing the boat up to a big stone, and moving carefully in order to leave no trace.

"Where does the road turn off from the river bank, Me Dain?" asked Jack.

"We have passed it already, sahib," replied the Burman. "It is solid jungle on both banks now, with no path at all The dacoits cannot follow except along the river itself."

"Then we've dropped 'em," said Jim Dent decisively. "We shall never see 'em again."

And Jim's words proved to be right. They had at last eluded the pursuit of the blood-thirsty little Kachins.

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